How iLEAD Student Aerospace Projects Inspired My Son to DreamUp

By a Proud Dad of a Future Astronaut

Editor’s note: Warren Press is the father of a fifth grader at Santa Clarita Valley International Charter School (SCVi) in Santa Clarita, California. Last year his son, Solomon, participated in iLEAD’s DreamUp to Space Experiment Design Challenge with the goal of developing an experiment that could be run on the International Space Station (ISS) in conjunction with DreamUp. This was a design challenge for fourth graders through high school seniors, with three out of over 120 experiments ultimately being chosen to go to the ISS. 

Our son came home from school one day last year, telling us about a project he and his classmates were given, to try to come up with a science experiment that might go to the International Space Station. We assumed Solomon must have been confused because the thought of a fourth grader’s experiment actually going to the ISS seemed a bit far-fetched! It turned out we weren’t confused at all. This was an actual competition for all fourth through twelfth graders throughout most of the iLEAD sites!

The kids were put into smaller groups, with each coming up with an experiment that might be able to help somehow in space exploration. A few weeks later the groups made short presentations to parents and judges; they were told that ten teams would be selected as semifinalists, with ultimately three experiment designs chosen to be launched and conducted on ISS.

Though the experiment of one of the other fourth grade groups was chosen among the ten finalists, my son’s was not. He was really bummed when he came home from school that day. This project had initiated a profound interest in space exploration for him — something he had never really been interested in before. That night my wife and I turned the disappointment into a teachable moment, reminding him that you don’t always get what you want, and unlike in his soccer league, everyone doesn’t always get a trophy in real life. 

When picking him up from school the next day, he told me his teacher announced the group whose experiment was chosen needed another five members to create a Launch Team in order to help them with the next phase of the competition, which included a lot of research and time outside of class. (It turns out that developing a Launch Team was part of iLEAD’s plan, which was to offer the opportunity to any learners who had the will to keep investing their time and energy into the team.) The learners were required to write a letter explaining why they wanted to be a part of the Launch Team and how they would help the team to reach their goals.

While we were driving home, I asked Solomon if he was going to write the letter. He said he didn’t think so. 

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because my facilitator (teacher) said a lot of people want to be picked and there’s only a small chance of getting picked.”

There was a long pause while he played with his Nintendo Switch. 

I asked, “Is there a better chance of getting picked if you write the letter or if you don’t write the letter?”

“Well,” he said, “there’s no chance of getting picked if I don’t write the letter.”

“Is there any chance of getting picked if you do write the letter?”

“Yeah, there’s a chance,” he said.

When we got home, I resisted every urge to sit him down with a sheet of paper and a pencil. I really wanted to see how badly he wanted it. He watched TV. Ate dinner. Took a shower. And right at bedtime, he told us he wanted to write the letter. 

And he did. And he got picked. And his group’s experiment was one of the three chosen to go to the International Space Center.

From the time he wrote that letter to today, he and his classmates have researched with several scientists, created a very long and detailed proposal way beyond their grade level, created a video presentation, and are currently working on another presentation they will present at the Kennedy Space Center. Their team recently loaded their experiment into a NanoRacks MixStix, which is a sort of flexible test tube, under the guidance of real scientists — all in preparation for our trip to Cape Canaveral to watch Space X-20 launch, with their experiment onboard, to the International Space Station on March 2, 2020.

In case you’re wondering, the experiment itself is to explore how microgravity affects the growth of seaweed, or algae. Because, as I learned from their presentation, seaweed is highly oxygenating, nutritious, and useful to blend water and oils as well as create gels like toothpaste, making it potentially useful for astronauts and future space colonizers if it can survive and flourish in microgravity.

We drove over two hours to the beach to gather a very specific type of seaweed being used in the experiment. We actually had GPS coordinates to take us to one of the only spots in California where this strand of seaweed grows!

Watching Solomon and his teammates search for the seaweed was inspiring. They were so dedicated as they looked at hundreds of rocks, gathering all sorts of seaweed and algae, and showing it to their amazing teacher (shoutout to Mrs. Brown!). And when they ultimately found the right seaweed lots of cheering and high fives it was incredibly moving. 

So many life lessons from this project: working together in a team, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, data analysis. It has been beyond exciting and engaging!

But the best lesson of all came on the night he decided to write that letter: If you put yourself out there and try, something truly wonderful might happen!

When he’s not at the beach gathering algae with his son, Warren Press is the VP of Sales for Feet First Eventertainment, a national corporate Team Building company that harnesses the power of PLAY. He believes strongly in Plato’s words that “You can learn more about a person in an hour’s worth of play than you can in a whole day of conversation.”

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